Yesterday morning I set out to deliver two workshop sessions at a Christian conference in another city. It was a round-trip journey that would have taken months by wagon. But such are the wonders of modern technology that I flew out in the morning and arrived home again late last night. (That explains my silence in the blog yesterday. I’ll catch up with comments later today.) Over the years I have spoken at many conferences of this type — for non-academic Christian professionals — and I continue to see the same themes present in the plenary speaker and many of the sessions. In the next two posts I’ll focus on two of those themes: “biblical worldview” and “truth”.
We begin in this installment by critiquing the perennial call to have a “biblical worldview”. This is hugely problematic for many reasons.
For starters, the very meaning of the term “biblical worldview” is vague if not vacuous. What, in short, is it supposed to mean to have a biblical worldview? Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul all were from radically different cultural contexts, with different understandings of the workings of the natural world (what we can call ancient science) and of history and definitely of theology. Just consider, for example, Paul’s radically different understanding of “Messiah” from that of the first three individuals mentioned. So what does it even mean to adopt a “biblical worldview”? Does that mean Paul’s worldview? And what about the fact that there famously seems to be tension between Paul and James, a tension that can be seen in Galatians 1-2 or a reading of the letter of James contrasted with those of Paul (assuming, of course, no pseudopigraphic authorship)? There is ample evidence that there was not unanimity in the early church on various matters like Torah and temple, so with whom do we side in those matters?
Let’s say for the sake of argument that we end up equating a biblical worldview with a broadly Pauline worldview. Think what this means for theology. Paul never affirmed the homoousion and the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian Definition of Christology. Of course he couldn’t have because these were doctrinal statements of the church wrought centuries after Paul died. So does that mean we have to unlearn these doctrinal statements?
A person might respond to that dilemma like this: we accept what Paul believed and whatever is consistent with what Paul believed. Thus, if we believe the homoousion and Nicene Creed and Chalcedonian Definition are consistent with what Paul taught then we can include those as part of our Pauline biblical worldview. Of course that introduces new difficulties. Did Paul teach Calvinism in Romans 9? Or is the teaching of Calvinism merely consistent with Romans 9 and Paul’s biblical worldview? Who decides?
Here’s another more glaring difficulty. Paul’s view of the workings of the natural world was wrong at numerous points. Consider the famous kenotic passage of Philippians 2:5-11. Paul assumes here a three storied view of the universe which includes a concept of heaven above the earth and hades in the bowels of the earth. Needless to say we cannot accept that. So we must tweak our notion of “biblical worldview” further. We can now state it as follows:
Biblical worldview: Whatever Paul believed about theology and what other biblical writers believed about theology to the extent that it is consistent with what Paul believed and what the church believed about theology to the extent that it is consistent with what Paul believed and what Paul believed about history and science to the extent that it is consistent with what we believe about history and science.
Needless to say this is a bizarre and useless notion. This leads me to conclude that “Have a biblical worldview” really functions as a way to say “the Bible is very important for thinking as a Christian”.
It is ironic that these people who talk about having a “biblical worldview” never reflect on the fact that the very language of “biblical worldview” is indicative of the Back to the Bible anti-intellectual non-denominational Protestant movements that arose in the 19th century as a way of pushing back beyond creeds and traditions and to have “no creed but the Bible”. Unfortunately such views are almost inevitably historically naive as they typically evince a near complete lack of historical awareness about one’s own socio-historical location.
In conclusion, I dream of the day when a plenary speaker at one of these conferences will eschew the mantra of a biblical worldview in favor of the more historically aware language of a Christian worldview or, even better, a worldview consistent with and informed by one’s Christian convictions.